The ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza has prompted much media focus on the flotilla and "flytilla" attempts to break the blockade over the past week or so. The Israelis demonstrated their considerable political influence around the world in persuading the Greek government not to let the ships of Freedom Flotilla II set sail for the Gaza Strip. Accusations of "dirty tricks" were brushed aside as the Israeli government and civil (I use the term loosely) society applied pressure on a number of different fronts to stop what they called the "provocation" of humanitarian activists seeking to take aid and moral support to the people of Gaza. Quite why nuclear-armed Israel could ever feel "provoked" by a bunch of unarmed protesters has never been explained because the Israelis and their Lobbyists around the world have no need to explain their actions; they just say, and others must do.
Benjamin Netanyahu's security clampdown at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in advance of the expected arrival of peace activists heading for the occupied West Bank – dubbed the "flytilla" – was criticised by the Israeli media for being over the top. As happened with the excuse for attacking ships en route to Gaza while they were in international waters, the Prime Minister claimed that he was entitled to defend Israel's sovereignty; if, in the process, he also denies Palestinians control over their land and who visits it, who cares? Not Netanyahu, that's for sure; he and his government have a cavalier approach to international laws and conventions. As Zvi Bar'el, writing in Haaretz, pointed out, Israel "presents the Gaza Strip as if it were part of its sovereign territory, and the blockade as a means to defend that sovereignty. It clings to the international law that permits it to block the flotillas seeking to undermine its sovereignty while rejecting international law when it tries to tell it how to conduct a 'legal' occupation". Furthermore, "Israel adopts international law only when it allows it to take action: to detain, to prohibit, to restrict the caloric intake of the occupied population. But it pushes to beyond its territorial waters the prohibitions of international law, such as the ban on building in the settlements or on demolishing homes."
Land convoys trying to break the siege of Gaza have always had to go through Egypt and cross into the besieged territory at Rafah because the Israelis refuse to allow any convoys to get through. They have to fulfil certain conditions imposed by the Foreign Ministry in Cairo; a lot of hard work and goodwill is required to do so, but it is possible. Early attempts by George Galloway's Viva Palestina convoys were both dramatic and disturbing from the Mubarak regime's point of view, hence the opposition and violent clashes which occurred in, for example, the small port of El-Arish, when the convoy was attacked by supporters of the old regime. Since then, projects such as Miles for Smiles convoys 1, 2 and 3 have succeeded in taking much-needed medical aid, including electric scooters for the disabled and ambulances equipped for disabled access. Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip has made sure that disabled people are one thing that Gaza has no shortage of. The siege has also led to 200 items on the Essential Drugs List being unavailable in hospitals across the territory. The latest convoy was able to ease that disgraceful state of affairs, but nowhere near enough.
Miles for Smiles 3 was the first such convoy passing through Egypt post-Mubarak and the process wasn't the cakewalk many anticipated; almost all of the restrictions at Rafah were still in place. Nevertheless, having complied with the Foreign Ministry's requirements, it entered Gaza last month (June 2011) in the full expectation of also being the first convoy to enter the Strip under the Interim Government appointed following the reconciliation agreement between the Palestinian factions. At the very least, the organisers believed, this would provide a practical demonstration that aid for Palestinians is non-partisan and dependent on need, not the political affiliation of the beneficiaries or the government ruling them. Delays in the implementation of the terms of the agreement, however, meant that the host government was (and is) still run by the democratically-elected Change and Reform group of elected representatives. Past efforts by the NGOs involved in the convoy have usually invoked the fury of the pro-Israel Lobby, with accusations of charities and individuals being "pro-Hamas" and "supporting terrorists" and it was expected that this would again be the case for MfS3.
The Jerusalem Post, however, quoted Israeli defence officials paying the convoy a backhanded compliment: "Miles of smiles… shows sending supplies to [Gaza] doesn't have to involve confrontation with the navy." The fact that the Israeli authorities sought to use Miles for Smiles 3 to "prove" the "provocation" of the Freedom Flotilla II is galling, but their statements basically gave a seal of approval to what the Jerusalem Post conceded was a "humanitarian aid project… jointly coordinated by Egyptian officials and the Hamas government". That has to be good news for charities and NGOs as a fairly explicit acknowledgement that humanitarian aid for Palestinians is neither "support for terrorists" nor, more specifically, indicative of support for Hamas by the convoy's organisers and participants. Of course, it is unlikely to convince the Israel Lobbyists whose recent actions have convinced the British Home Secretary to act, in the words of one journalist, "more Israeli than the Israelis" with regards to the arrest of leading Arab-Israeli political figure Shaikh Raed Salah. After all, moderation and reason have never been the Lobbyists' strong points. Some things never change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.